Overreaction of the week: the Spokane Chiefs and Vancouver Giants are going to go on late season rolls.
Two of the most puzzling teams this season in the WHL’s Western Conference are the B.C. Division’s Vancouver Giants and the U.S. Division’s Spokane Chiefs.
Both were expected by this writer to win their respective divisions and have a great chance at tangling again in the Western Conference final.
Both teams have failed to live up to those expectations.
The Giants have played well defensively and have gotten great goaltending from overager David Tendeck but have struggled to score.
Tristen Nielsen leads the way with 22 goals and 24 assists for 46 points through 47 games. Only two other players who have been with the team all season have more than nine goals. Justin Sourdif (16-20-36 points) and Milos Roman (15-13-28 points) are those two Giants.
Besides that trio, the team was having a hard time replicating what its deep roster of forwards did last season when eight players had 12 or more goals.
Enter Eric Florchuk and Tyler Preziuso. Both were acquired this season and paid immediate dividends. Florchuk notched the overtime winner against Kamloops at home on Friday, capping off a three-point night. In his 10 games since the Giants got him from Saskatoon, he has five goals and nine assists for 14 points. Preziuso has eight goals in 19 games with the Giants. Those two have added some secondary scoring for Vancouver which was sorely needed.
The two wins over the Blazers in their home-and-home set over the weekend were a statement to the rest of the division and the conference. They also have a four-game point streak and seem on the verge of putting everything together. Sure they were outshot by the Blazers, but the Giants last season were all about timely goals and keeping high-quality scoring chances at bay. They seem to be finding that recipe again.
Bowen Byram has not quite found the magic he had last season, and there were rumors he was available at the trade deadline (probably for a crazy high price). He had a three-point night on Friday and a four-point weekend. The talent is certainly there for the gold-medal winning d-man. If he starts to replicate what he did last season, look out.
With 21 games left, there is no chance the Giants are catching the Blazers as they are 19 points back. But there is a good chance they can catch the reeling Victoria Royals. Victoria has won just three of its last 10 games and has looked beatable without goalie Shane Farkas.
Vancouver currently sits eight points back with two games in hand. The Giants have four games left against the Royals as well. Even if they end up in the three spot in the B.C., teams will not want to take on the experienced Giants who have many players who were just one goal away from winning the WHL last season.
Spokane also had two key wins over the weekend. The Chiefs trounced the Kelowna Rockets 7-3 and 6-0 and are now 5-1-1-0 in their last seven games.
Showcased over the weekend were both the high-end talent on the roster and a key overager in Leif Mattson who could help them with their own secondary scoring issues this season.
Adam Beckman had six points over the weekend (he now leads the league with 78 points), Luke Toporowski had four and Mattson had two goals.
James Porter Jr also shut out his former team on Saturday.
The big thing that came through though was the Spokane power play. The team went 8-for-15 on the man advantage.
The power play has been a mystery this season. The Chiefs retained a majority of the components from the top power-play unit in both the regular and postseason in 2018-19. But somehow they have struggled under a new power-play system under head coach Manny Viveiros.
I’ve been looking for them to break out, and they appear to have started that over the weekend.
They have surged up to fifth overall at 23.2 percent with this recent run. In their last five games, they have scored 12 power-play goals on 24 opportunities. That is an insane 50 percent.
If the Chiefs can keep this recent run going — which with Beckman, Ty Smith, Eli Zummack and Toporowski out there is possible — they could make things interesting in the U.S. They are nine points back of Everett for second in the division which should be out of reach. However, home ice advantage seemed out of reach last season, but the Chiefs still caught and overcame the Winterhawks in that same spot.
Portland and Everett both would love to skip playing the Chiefs in what is sure to be a knock-down, drag-out first-round series.
Underrated player of the week: Martin Fasko-Rudas
The import forward has always shown signs of elite shooting. An injury derailed the start of his season and ultimately he was traded away from Everett. Fasko-Rudas ended up landing with the Saskatoon Blades where he has fit right in. He had a hat trick on Wednesday and has five goals and six assists for 11 points in just nine games with the Blades.
That is after posting eight points in 17 games with the Silvertips before being traded.
He has always been a volume shooter as his 72 shots over 26 total games shows, but he is starting to find the net with more regularity.
If he keeps this up, the Blades could have themselves another Gary Haden. The former Blades forward was acquired from the Medicine Hat Tigers and “Uncle Gary” had 62 points after coming over in a midseason trade.
Stat of the week: 6 points
As in the swing in points atop the East Division last week. Going into the week, the Winnipeg ICE were holding a two-point advantage over the Prince Albert Raiders.
The Raiders then beat Victoria, Lethbridge and Swift Current, while the ICE dropped all three games over a quick Alberta road trip.
Now the Raiders are four points above the ICE for the East Division lead with the ICE having one game in hand. With the Brandon Wheat Kings sitting one point behind Winnipeg and five back of P.A., this division is going to be crazy tight over the last five weeks of the season.
Tweet of the week:
Our own Ben Dooley took out a Portland Winter Hawk legend.
Watch as @BenTDooley takes out hockey legend Dave Babych in North Surrey today. Take that!Great event promoting access to sports. A couple of other high profile hockey players also hit the ice. See more at 6pm on @GlobalBC #wickfest @wick_22 pic.twitter.com/9nWb2tg870
— Jill Bennett (@jillreports) February 2, 2020